Saturday, February 19, 2005

Maybe I Should Start Trying To Work My Way Up The Career Ladder After All...

I really want to be able to say no to Grant Morrison's upcoming Seven Soldiers project, or at least to limit myself to only reading one or two of the mini-series as they come out, but... I've looked at the artist list and I've read the online previews and god help me, I want these comics -- and soon!

This isn't entirely a bad thing, of course. It gives me something to look forward to on the comic book front, which is currently a very rare and welcome feeling round my way. But still, my wallet is cringing in anticipation of the year-long financial strain of this particular pop-culture experience.

Yesterday's Memes Today!

Because all the cool kids were doing it. And most of the uncool kids. And that one weird kid who spends most of his time talking to the water cooler -- I'm pretty sure I saw him doing it too.

1. Total amount of music files on your computer:

There's something like 2GB of music on my PC at the moment. I used to have more, but I'm trying to keep thing more paired down these days because my computer is kind of old and has a fairly limited amount of free hard drive space.

2. The last CD you bought was:

Frank Black's Teenager of the Year. I'm a pretty huge fan of Black's music, so it was good to finally listen to the whole thing from start to finish, having previously heard most of the songs in little downloaded dribs and drabs. And hey, whaddaya know -- it's an awesome pop-rock album that neatly bridges the gap between the Pixies' abrasive weirdness and Black's later adventures in Americana. Also, the line "My heart is crammed in my cranium, and it still knows how to pound" from 'Headache' is sheer lyrical genius and should be celebrated as such.

3. What is the song you last listened to before reading this message?

'Avon' by Queens of the Stone Age. I really like that first QOTSA album--their last couple of albums have been pretty good and all, but there's a compelling economy to their debut that works for me in a way that their other albums just plain don't. Here, the Black Sabbath meets Can stylings work really well as a mesmeric backdrop for some of Josh Home's strangest and most mournful vocals -- it's like party rock that gets trapped in its own groove and goes all sad and woozy as a result, and how often do you get to throw that description around?

4. Write down 5 songs you often listen to or that mean a lot to you.

Lets get the most obvious song out of the way first shall we? The Pixies' 'Debaser' pretty much sums up my highschool years for me. It's both a neat sonic representation of the general sense of discomfort and strangeness that I associate with that period of my life, and a pretty good example of the obvious sort of ways that I tired to turn this uneasiness into a defining characteristic. 'Cos the Pixies are, like, this totally amazing band who you won't have heard of, and they sing about, like, surrealist films and stuff and when I grow up I want to be a debaser too! Quite importantly, 'Debaser' is also a lot of fun, and while it's sometimes easy to overlook this fact in favour of broad drama, I had some pretty good times at high school, so, erm, yeah -- this song covers all the bases (no pun intended)!

Moving on, 'Do You Realize' may not be my favourite Flaming Lips song, but it's probably the one I have the most immediate connection with. I regularly wrestle with my atheism and with the general sense that my life doesn't mean shit in the scale of things, and while I may not cover any particularly original ground in my thoughts on these matters, I do mostly manage to come out of these deliberations feeling pretty positive. 'Do You Realize' is the perfect soundtrack to these worries, and while its lyrics are hardly profound on their own, when Wayne Coyne sings them in his weedy little voice... I dunno, it just comes together for me. He can't quite hit those notes as firmly as he'd like, but he gives it a go anyway, and the way that this all-too-human struggle bounces off of and gets caught up in the lush pop symphony that is the rest of the song makes the song's affirmations seem every bit as joyous and hard-won as they should.

It's funny, because 'Rid Of Me' is my ultimate disturbed break-up song, but I think I'm going to go with 'This Is Love' as the PJ Harvey song that means the most to me. There's a whole world of difference between these two tunes, but while 'Rid Of Me' makes for great deranged catharsis, I think I value the weird mix of self-involved joy and external awareness that you get in 'This Is Love' more. It's still deeply visceral and satisfying, but it's also a bit more balanced and, y'know, sane, which just about gives it the edge in my book.

There's no doubt in my mind that 'Bowtie' would have been a huge hit had it been released as a single. It's easily my favourite song from Outkast's last double album, and it makes the list because no other song evokes good times so well for me. The whole thing just struts, swings and swaggers itself silly -- every element of the song locks perfectly into the one fleet-footed, ass-shaking groove, and man do I ever love it!

The last song I'm going to mention here is 'I Only Said' by My Bloody Valentine. Like pretty much every track on Loveless, 'I Only Said' is a glorious wall of noise that almost manages to swallow its various sonic components whole. This may not sound hugely appealing to some people, but to my ears it's quite beautiful -- the way that broken fragments of rhythm, noise and melody weave in and out of the main effect-heavy drone is both disorienting and strangely thrilling at the same time. There's a real sense of freedom in this song, but it's the sort of freedom that it's easy to get lost or trapped in, if that makes any sense at all. Cards on the table, this song is here as a stand in for the whole of Loveless, which is one of my favourite albums of all time. As far as I'm concerned it's the perfect soundtrack for reading Borges' Labyrinths, the Morrison/Case Doom Patrol run and The New Trilogy, which should hopefully give you some idea of what I get out of this music.

5. Who are you going to pass this stick to? (3 persons) and why?

If anyone who's reading this wants to give it a go then fair play to them, but I can't really be bothered harassing anyone in particular here.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Blue Monday

Right -- I wrote a different version of this post at the start of the week, only to have blogger chew it up and then lock me out of my account for a few days. Fuck knows what that was all about, but lets see if I can actually get these thoughts up now that I'm able to write here again:

'Too Much Love' isn't one of the standout tracks on LCD Soundsystem's debut album, but there's something about the song that I seem to have become obsessed with... Something that seems to draw me back in again and again.

"What will you do when the day comes, when it's no fun, when it's all done" whispers James Murphy in the flat, worn out tones of a man who is either facing up to the fact that the initial rush of love is about to run out, or has at least convinced himself that this is the case. The music follows suit, providing a minimalist rhythmic backdrop that should probably be boring but somehow ends up being strangely hypnotic instead. Initially there are only a couple of spooky Aphex Twin style noises in the mix to accompany this low-key fare, but by the time that Murphy has raised his voice to sing about having "no memories... to keep you up at night" a wave of broken music box noises have crept into the sonic backdrop. It's at this point that I can't help but think of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Hell, towards the end of the song it almost sounds like chunks of Jon Brion's fragile score are blurring in and out of there or something! Of course, this tune isn't quite as good as Eternal Sunshine, but that's no slight in my book!

I think there's definitely something to this comparison though. Both Eternal Sunshine and 'Too Much Love' are, on at least one level, acknowledgements of the difficulties inherent in maintaining a relationship over time, and while 'Too Much Love' may lack the complex narrative interplay that made Michel Gondry's second film so special, it still stands as a fine evocation of a certain state of mind.

It's also the LCD Soundsystem track that makes me think that Murphy should hook up with Kylie Minogue at some point in the future. They could make some top quality mournful elector-pop together, methinks!

Speaking of which, here's something I wrote ages ago about 'I Just Can't Get You Out Of My Head' (a.k.a. the second best Kylie song ever):

A lot of people I know seem to think that I'm being ironic when I go on about how good this song is, but they are utterly, utterly mad, cos it really is brilliant; a towering slice of immaculate disco, sexy as all hell and yet run through with a weird, obsessive sadness. It's definitely one of my favourite pop songs from the last couple of years. Hell, it's probably one of my favourite pop songs of all time. There's something about the almost flawless, robotic sound of the whole thing -- it's both really shiny and fun, and a little bit sad in a way. Maybe it's just me, I don't know, but I think it adds something to lyrics -- it gives them a kind of hollowness, a lack of fulfillment that is oddly fitting...

"There's a dark secret in me
Don't leave me locked in your heart

Set me free
Feel the need in me
Set me free
Stay forever and ever and ever and ever"

Brrr -- is it just me, or is there a chill in here!

I do hope that no one takes the rather negative look at romance I've provided in this post to be a reflection of some sort of bitter post-Valentines Day mood on my part. I may be a little bit cynical about the whole affair, and a whole lot caught up in the rush of my own love life, but bitterness isn't really my style, even when I actually have something to be bitter about.

Well, that's me done for now. Let's just hope that blogger doesn't throw a fit this time!

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Those Zombie Blues

A couple more thoughts on the question of how our relationship with fiction effects our relationship with reality, and how this feeds back into the fiction itself:

One of the most interesting things about last year's Dawn of the Dead remake, from my perspective at least, was the fact that none of the movie's main characters thought twice about letting a group of people who'd been bitten by zombies into their little sanctuary. I saw this movie on my own at a time when I was really stressed out (it was the middle of my exam period, so, y'know -- argh!), and for the most part I felt pretty closed-in and rattled by the experience, but when they let those zombies in the making in... I just kinda laughed, y'know? Since I'm aware of the conventions of this genre, this obvious blunder just seemed kinda dumb to me, but... this isn't a fault in the movie or anything. It's just that Dawn of the Dead takes place in a world without zombie fiction. That's absolutely fine, and it doesn't harm the intended effect of the movie at all.

Compare this to Shaun of the Dead, wherein the characters seem slightly aware of the tropes of the genre that they're caught up in, at least to the extent that they can have a conversation about whether using "the z word" is stupid or not. Of course, this awareness doesn't stop them from blundering into a classic zombie movie dead-end, but that's part of the overall theme of the movie, what with Shaun resorting to his local pub both when he's trying to set-up a romantic dinner with his girlfriend and when he's trying to come up with a decent plan to survive the zombie situation. As that previous sentence hopefully indicates, Shaun of the Dead isn't a hamfisted zombie spoof, despite what it's title might indicate. What it is, however, is a comedy, and it plays out with a more overt sort of self-awareness than its less humorous American cousin as a result of this.

Here's another example for ya -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The series obviously takes place in a fantasy world, but the way it plays with its characters' familiarity with various genre tropes is intriguing. It's such a weird balancing act when you think about it -- Jolly Joss Whedon and his team really go for all the straight-up trash poetry that they can draw out of their fantastic setting (highschool=the gate to hell, etc), but yet they also have their characters flex their postmodern muscles in their dealings with the world they find themselves in.

It seems to me that this is perhaps slightly different from what I was talking about when I was dealing with Spaced and Scott Pilgrim. In that post I was talking about fiction's capacity to depict the forms of fiction-influenced perception through which we look at the world. This can be achieved using various degrees of self-reflexivity in a story, i.e. through postmodern comedy or drama (like in Spaced and The Singing Detective), through the trash poetry of straight genre work, or through some hybrid of these two approaches. Scott Pilgrim probably falls somewhere in that last category, now that I think about it -- its characters seem to find the world the live in to be completely natural, but there's something slightly more self-aware in the form of the story itself (that'd be that "Nintendo Realism" at work again, I guess).

Anyways, what we have in Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a fantasy story whose characters show some self-awareness of the sort of narratives they're caught up in. This theme can be found outside of genre fiction, of course, but it's more obvious when the narratives in question are so otherworldly. Here we have an even more convoluted train of cause and effect to track -- this is fiction that depicts characters using their fiction-gleamed perceptual lenses to deal with and comment on fictional situations. With this in mind, it is perhaps important to note that in the examples in question this element does not overwhelm the narrative itself -- self-aware genre commentary isn't the be all and end all of these stories, but is instead just another element of the overall fiction in question. This doesn't make Buffy the Vampire Slayer implicitly any better or worse than Dawn of the Dead (nor does it mean that DotD isn't a comment on the genre), but it does mean that a very definite line can be drawn between things like Buffy or Shaun of the Dead and, say, Scary Movie (and thank the great baked bean machine in the sky for that!). There is the question of where something like Scream fits into this scheme of things, but, well... I just kinda hate that movie! Partly I think this is because it's just a crappy movie, but I also think that it straddles that line I just set up between Shaun of the Dead and Scary Movie in a couple of grating ways.

So, erm, yeah -- I'm going to chill on these thoughts for a while before I end up getting even more confused than I already am.
Some Days I Quite Fancy Doing A Little Bit Of This Myself...


Friday, February 11, 2005

Steer Your Career!

All of this Scott Pilgrim talk reminds me -- there's an awesome post about the series up on intriguing new comics blog GraphiContent right now which I highly recommend you to check out!

The post's writer, one Pete Mortensen, works wonders with the comic throughout the course of his essay, coining the term "Nintendo Realism" and discussing Joycean self-awareness and Grant Morrison's Animal Man along the way. But wonderful as these musings are, he saves his bets flourish for last, and fuck it -- I'm going to quote a whole chunk of it right here and now:

"Self-discovery and a strong base of support are more important in life than the things that will make up a biography. Job title, salary, pants size, eye color, warp pipe brain, car color don't add up to anything. Seeing life for what it has to offer makes Scott a character worth celebrating. This is not a tale of angst, it's a story of joy and discovery -- none of which has to do with the often fantastic framing of each vignette. Rather than dwell on the inevitable period of your 20s when the best you can muster is the occasional venture out with friends and the ability to sleep for 16 hours straight, O'Malley crystallizes the new experiences that make that time survivable and rewarding... For many of this generation, simply making friends laugh or kissing another human being who brings out the best in you is a triumph -- squandered potential be damned"

Scott Pilgrim is a pretty aimless and self-centered character in some ways, but yet I still feel a huge rush of joy when I read about his precious little life, and I think that Mr Mortensen hits the nail on the head pretty damned perfectly in his explanation of why this is so.
Welcome To The Real World, Suckers!

I'm not going to pretend to have any clue as to whether or not Edgar Wright is going to make a movie version of Scott Pilgrim, but what I will say is that while I'm as sick as all hell of movie adaptations, there's definitely something to the idea of this particular director taking on Bryan Lee O'Malley's comic book.

You see, ever since I read Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life it's been bracketed off in my head with Spaced, the British TV series that Wright directed before finding something a little bit closer to international fame with Shaun of the Dead. The connecting point, as I see it, is that these are both 20-something slice-of-life stories that occasionally tip over into the sort of pop culture fantasy that their protagonists are immersed in, such as when Scott Pilgrim becomes a beat-em-up, or when the Spaced posse find themselves up against some Matrix style secret agents at the start of series 2.

While there are certainly differences between the ways that both series handle this idea (Spaced is slightly jokier and more self-aware than Scott Pilgrim, I think), I'm pretty sure that Wright can handle this sort of material as well as anyone, and if there's going to be a movie of this comic, I'll be thrilled if he turns out to be the man behind it.

On the whole I'm a pretty big fan of the style (or styles) of storytelling I've been describing here, and I can't help thinking that maybe these stories have something in common with another one of my favourite British TV series, Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective. It seems to me that The Singing Detective dealt with the ways that our perception are shaped and informed by the various sorts of pop culture we consume in a manner that resonates quite strongly with the stories I've been talking about so far. The cultural cuisine in question may be different (detective stories and old pop songs instead of computer games and comic books), but there's something to this comparison beyond such details. Life isn't like a Quentin Tarantino movie, but we do live in an age where people can easily process most of the myriad of references that make up his cinematic palette. This postmodern pop-culture overload definitely has an effect on the way people look at the world, and while there's room for horrible smugness in this approach it's still good to read/watch works of art that deal with this fact, either playfully, as in Spaced and Scott Pilgrim, or in the feverish, internalized drama of The Singing Detective.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Behold -- The Ballpoint Pen Thieves Have Returned!

It's been a while since I did a bit of the old link-blogging, so lets see if I've still got anything approaching a knack for it.

--Kieron Gillen and Graeme McMillan have both linked to it already, but this Alan Moore interview is well worth reading for his observations on the craft of writing. That photo of Mr Moore that balances preposterously across the top of the page is a bit much for my tastes though.

--Since I was talking about Seaguy earlier this week (and because the series is now available in a new shiny trade paperback edition), I think this is a pretty good time to link to this neat little review of the ace Morrison/Stewart comic book, which I stumbled across on this Barbelith thread.

While I'm as skeptical as anyone about the need to legitimise comics and make them acceptable (it just reeks of desperation, really), I was at least pleased to see that the reviewer in this piece is quite comfortable to discuss Seaguy alongside Marjane Satrapi's second Persepolis graphic novel and Posy Simmonds' Gemma Bovery. Indeed, he even makes a point of stressing the more traditionally comic booky pleasures of Seaguy over what he feels to be the undernourished pretentiousness of Simmonds' work.

--Here's Jon Brion talking to the Onion AV Club about his score for Punch-Drunk Love:

"Paul knew he wanted to have a harmonium in the movie. And we knew fairly early on that we wanted a musical nod to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, in terms of there being a melody that develops in the movie that has a reference to the plot, however oblique. We also knew that we wanted some sort of romantic theme, the feeling of an old Hollywood musical without people ever breaking out into song. That's one of the many ways Paul and I fit together: We like to look around and see what things people have been neglecting or have given up on. The other thing is how outrageously corny some of the orchestra stuff is. Like when they're kissing and the strings swell, I was laughing hysterically, and he was going, "No, bigger, bigger, bigger." It still cracks me up whenever I see the movie. But there's something beautiful about that at this point, because people have gotten so far away from that that it was fresh again. It was so funny to be on sessions and conducting the orchestra and looking at the screen--it was like 1938 all over again."

The rest of the interview is pretty damned good too, by the way, and is well worth a read if you're at all interested in Brion's work either inside or outside of the movies.

And, erm, that's about it for now. Looks like I need to do a wee bit of browsing before I try to do one of these posts again, dontcha think?


Thursday, February 03, 2005

I Heart Huckabees

As those who know me in real life will already know, I loved David O. Russell's most recent movie so much that I'm currently wearing an I Heart Huckabees badge on my favourite jacket. Sure, it's a mess of a film, but it's an interesting sort of mess that trips itself up in all manner of wonderful ways. And as I wrote to a couple of friends immediately after I saw the movie, existential slapstick is a genre I could get into!

This post on the ever marvelous Clap Clap blog is pretty much exactly on the money, particularly in the way that it stresses the importance of the comedic aspects of the film. Crucially, Eppy points out that the movies humour is not mocking or nihilistic in the end. Asking difficult questions is important, the movie seems to say, but keeping a decent sense of humour about these questions (and yourself) is pretty necessary too.

Doubling back for a second, I'd just like to point out that the best part of Eppy's post is his analysis of the role that Shania Twain plays in the movie. The twist in the Shania Twain plot that pops up at the end of the movie is pivotal, I think -- it's maybe the movie's most absurd moment, but it's also its most leveling and affirming in a way. As Eppy says:

It's a funny scene--I mean, it's Shania Twain yelling about environmentalism, how could it not be--but it's also an important one, because it flips our expectations on their head. We may want to make her into this cardboard cutout, this symbol of things we dislike, but those things are human and complicated and real, and every once in a while they need to show up and whack you on the head to make you realize what's going on.
There's more great stuff like that over on his blog -- go check it out. And if you've not seen the movie yet then make sure you do so as soon as you can!

That's me for tonight folks. Take care, and I'll see ya later.

For Scott McAllister

This post on the undeserved cancellation of the Crew gave me a real "I saw this and thought of you" feeling. You should probably check it out.

Sound And Fury

So I was reading through the new issue of The Comics Journal the other day, and somewhat unsurprisingly I found myself drawn to the short review of Seaguy that lurks on page 265. Now as you may recall, I was a pretty big fan of this particular comic book, and Bryan Miller's review is a playful look at what did and didn't work in the series that makes for pretty good reading unto itself.

The weird thing about this review for me is that while I can't really find much in there to disagree with intellectually, I still find myself unable to properly connect with it in a couple of key ways. Like, when Miller says "...it's difficult to be too emotional, what with all of the talking mules and space mummies and Egyptian dog warriors to get to" I just find myself thinking "nah!"

For me, the bizarre world that Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart created was utterly essential to its emotional impact! I do agree with Miller that there's probably too much going on in there, but if I'm being honest I quite often like that in a story! There are quite a few elements here that seem to exist beyond the utility of the narrative, and I'm a fan of this when its done well, as it seems to give the sense of a world that has life outside of its relation to the main character. Of course the question here is whether or not these elements overwhelm the story itself or not, and while I'm open to arguments to the contrary, I tend to think that most of the elements at play in Seaguy work together pretty well.

The point I'm trying to make though, is that it's exactly this peculiar window dressing that makes Seaguy so viscerally appealing to me. There's nothing particularly new about the story itself: it's the story of a young guy who wants to go on some sort of high adventure in a bizarre uber-branded society that doesn't seem to have any space for that sort of thing anymore. The three issue mini-series (potentially the first of several, depending on sales of the trade paperback) details his attempts to do just that. Of course, it all goes to hell in the end, with the ramifications of his attempts at being a superhero turning out to be much more complex than he ever seems to have imagined. Don't get me wrong -- this is a solid set-up for a series, but its the weird world that's conjured up somewhere between Grant Morrison's words and Cameron Stewart's visuals that gives this comic its kick. For example, the attacks on consumerist spectacle that Morrison offers up here are neither new nor particularly subtle (although the role played by Xoo in series does add a nice twist to this element), but I'll be damned if I don't find Mickey Eye hella unsettling! It's like with Punch-Drunk Love, where the visual/musical stylistics carry the meaning of the story for me, y'know? In both cases I understand that that not everyone is going to have my reaction to these elements, but they resonate heavily with me nonetheless.

Anyway, while I'm talking about Punch-Drunk Love again, I should probably mention that ever since I first saw the movie it's had this weird connection in my head with 'Letter to Memphis' by the Pixies. I mean, just check out the lyrics:

"The day since I met her
I can't believe it's true
She came here from Memphis
Across the ocean sailing
And I saw her
And I pleaded
Why do you come so far?
And she said trying to get to you
How I tried to get you
Trying to get you

I'm sending a letter
I'll send it right to you
I'll send it to Memphis
I know that someday
Everything I needed and I wanted
Used to be that my head was haunted

And all these sirens, they make me mad
And all this violence it brings me down
I feel strong I feel lucky
Trying to get to you
Said I'm going to get to you
Trying to get to you."

Those last five lines rub up against P.T. Anderson's movie particularly well as far as I'm concerned. The sirens, the haunted heads, the distant communication and the feeling of unlikeliness... it's not just me here, right? And as for sci-fi stylistics, well, this song may not be about UFOs, but there's a reason why critics are often guilty of overstating the role that flying saucers play on those last couple of Pixies albums, and it's that even when Black Francis wasn't singing about them he normally sounded like he could be!

Anyways, I think I've wondered far enough off topic for one post so I'm gonna call this one to a close before it really gets away from me! Take care y'all!

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